Why We Put Up with Hazing

Hazing is defined as the act of forcing someone to perform strenuous, humiliating, or dangerous tasks. It’s especially prevalent with new or potential recruits in the military, college fraternities, and various other clubs. Hazing is typically part of the right of initiation; passages people must endure before becoming a full-fledged members of some groups.

Who can forget National Lampoon’s Animal House and the classic scene where Faber college freshmen pledges to the Delta Tau Chi fraternity were repeatedly spanked with a wooden paddle, each time responding with, “Thank you sir, may I have another!” The portrayal of what the Delta Tau pledges had to go through in the movie was seemingly innocent, albeit humiliating, college fun. Unfortunately life isn’t always like the movies. Last fall Robert Champion, a 26 year-old Florida AM University student, “died within an hour of a hazing incident” according to an autopsy.
Champion was the band drum major and allegedly was repeatedly hit by other band members in a hazing incident. Roland S. Martin addressed this dangerous practice in a CNN article he called “Only students can truly end hazing.”
One question that needs to be asked is why Robert Champion would choose to go through such hazing? Why do fraternity pledges endure “Hell Week”? Why to military recruits and others voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way just to join a group? I think two principles of influence address a good bit of the psychology behind the decisions of people who want to become members of certain groups.
Consensus, also known as social proof, is the principle of influence that alerts us to the reality that people look to the behavior of others when deciding what the right course of action is. We are influenced by what many other people are doing or by the behaviors of people we view as being similar to us. Imagine for a moment you’re a part of a dozen people who are trying to get into some club. When you see those ordinary people who appear to be just like you willingly submitting to some form of hazing it would be extremely hard to be the first, or only person to stand up and say no. Mom and dad would have called what you’re experiencing in that moment “peer pressure.” It’s not unlike teens and smoking. They all know it’s bad for them – in addition to being expensive – and yet many do it because their friends are all doing it.
To make matters more difficult, researchers find that consensus is even stronger when people are not sure what the right course of action is. Never having pledged a fraternity or joined the military you can see why pledges and recruits find it that much tougher to say no.
The next principle at play is scarcity. This principle addresses the psychological reality that people tend to want things more when they think they’re less available or harder to get. Groucho Marx was famous for saying, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” In other words, if any club openly accepted Groucho then maybe that club wasn’t such a great club after all. The harder it is to get in the more people value membership. That’s a big reason some clubs, fraternities and other organizations make it difficult to join.
However, hazing is only one way to make joining a club difficult and thus gaining the benefits of scarcity. Getting into Harvard or Yale is tough because of the grades required. In order to qualify for the Boston Marathon runners need to run certain times to earn the right to run the race. The Marines are famous for saying they’re “The Few, The Proud, The Marines,” implying not everyone can join. In each case, apart from the need for hazing it’s still very, very difficult to be a part of those groups.
Roland Martin is right, only students can end the hazing and that admonition extends to anyone else in positions of power in exclusive or semi-exclusive groups. Exclusivity can be built in through other means and as pledges and recruits see others going through the new, non-hazing, initiation rites they’ll probably fall in line and see them as acceptable and normal. In time, as class after class goes through the new passages perhaps hazing as we know it today, and the tragedies that sometimes result, will become a thing of the past.If you’re viewing this by email and want to listen to the audio version click here. If you want to leave a comment click here.

Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.

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